THE BLACK PRESIDENT
Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama
By Claude A. Clegg III
The election of the 44th president of the United States was not only a nationally historic event but, for Black Americans, a transformative moment. It marked the transition to a wholly new conception of themselves as citizens of America, one that shattered the centuries of ingrained pessimism concerning what was ultimately possible in the country to which they have been forced to give so much, and from which they had learned to receive so little. The president himself foretold this as his greatest achievement. When his wife warily asked him, upon his announcement that he would run for the presidency, “Why do you need to be president?” he gave as his primary reason that on the day he became president “kids all around this country — Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in — they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.” His answer was prophetic.
Claude A. Clegg III’s “The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama” explores at length “the impact and meaning for African Americans” of Obama’s presidency. And while he discovers that the Black American response was “complex, layered and fractured,” as one would expect from a population of nearly 47 million people, the main conclusion of his comprehensive, interpretive study is the steadfast commitment of Black voters to the president, despite the disappointments expressed by many Black leaders with the degree to which his policies changed the actual condition of African Americans.
Beyond the fact that the presence of a Black couple in the White House transcended all for Black Americans, four factors stood out in complicating Obama’s relation to many influential Black leaders: his political pragmatism; his moderation on race and reluctance to publicly engage with it; his steadfast commitment to the view that a universalist, race-neutral approach to policy, rather than one that targeted Blacks for special attention, worked best for the nation and for Black people themselves (best exemplified in his historic health program); and his view that while every effort had to be made by government to correct the persistent wrongs of racism, Black Americans had a personal responsibility to change those self-immiserating patterns of behavior that inhibited their progress, like the high rate of father absence. These positions were sources of teeth-gritting irritation to many Black leaders, at least one of whom, Jesse Jackson (himself an absent father), was overheard wishing for Obama’s emasculation.
The first part of the book examines Obama’s background and early development, and his political career from the Illinois legislature up to his victorious presidential campaign. This is the most challenging period of Obama’s extraordinary career for any biographer. Like some figure from mythology, Obama burst upon America from a strange and wondrous background of vastly different souls and places — Hawaii, Indonesia, Seattle, Kansas — the son of two “wanderers and dreamers,” an adventurous white mother from the American heartland, a roving Black father from the east of Africa, who soon disappeared. How from these unlikely comminglings emerged the luminous figure channeling his “fierce ambition” and preternatural social and rhetorical skills into the young candidate who captivated a racially fraught nation is a mystery that many have already tried to unravel. Clegg, the Lyle V. Jones professor of history and African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, effectively assesses and summarizes available accounts with some new materials of his own.